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Sodium-ion batteries on the rise as shift away from lithium gathers pace

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By Robin Bromby - 
Sodium ion battery shift from lithium EV renewables

The bad news keeps coming for lithium, now with visuals — as in television footage of electric vehicles (EVs) in the US knocked out of action due to snowstorms and plunging temperatures.

Or burnt-out shells of cars.

Now one of Australia’s advanced lithium projects seems to have been derailed.

With lithium prices having lost 80% of their value since the mid-2022 high and seemingly destined to fall further, bankers to Liontown Resources (ASX: LTR) have pulled their $760 million financing for development of the Kathleen Valley mine.

This is a second blow for Liontown after lithium giant Albemarle recently withdrew its takeover bid.

Albemarle had offered $3 per Liontown share, with mining magnate Gina Rinehart paying the same price to acquire a 19.9% stake in the target company.

Liontown’s shares closed trade on Tuesday at $0.91.

The financial press is now reporting that lithium and nickel miners are seeking a meeting with the federal government to provide further support.

Chinese auto makers turn to sodium-ion

Two days after Christmas, a Chinese factory completed its first vehicle in a planned mass production of a new electric model, the Volkswagen-backed JAC Yiwei hatchback — powered by a sodium-ion battery.

The makers say the battery can be recharged in 20 minutes.

The very next day, Jiangling Motors — in a joint venture with Ford — rolled out the first JMEV EV3, also powered by a sodium-ion battery.

EV giant BYD is now building a sodium-ion battery plant costing US$1.4 billion and located in Xuzhou, a city in northern Jiangsu province.

Its first wave of batteries will be used in micro-vehicles and scooters, with automobiles the next step.

And sodium enthusiasm is spreading.

Sweden’s Northvolt has harnessed sodium brines to produce a battery that contains neither lithium nor cobalt nor graphite nor nickel.

France’s Stellantis — maker of Citroen, Peugeot, Dodge, Opel and other vehicle badges  — has decided to invest in French company Tiamat, which is developing its own sodium-based battery technology.

Freeing US from Chinese dependence

The US and Canada have enormous sodium resources — between them more than 20% of the world’s total.

Large tracts of sodium brine are found in North Dakota, Montana and Saskatchewan — the latter of which is now being targeted by Denver-based Peak Energy, a new US sodium battery start-up.

This means that US automakers will rely far less heavily on China, which still dominates the processing of most key battery metals.

Sodium-ion batteries are seen as far more cost-effective than lithium ones due to a combination of the abundance of the raw material and lower production costs.

Peak claims it will be producing sodium-ion batteries next year and they will be up to 40% cheaper than those using lithium.

‘Abundant’ resource

In a recent research paper, Dutch-based ING Bank describes sodium as “one of the most abundant and geographically-spread resources on Earth”.

It is found in rock salts and brines around the world.

“It is cheaper and more abundant than lithium, making it less susceptible to resource availability issues and to price volatility,” ING notes.

“This could also reduce dependence on China during the green energy transition.”

It is also “greener”. Northvolt claims that replacing graphite with hard carbon will reduce the battery’s carbon footprint.

Less flammable alternative

Then there’s the recent abundance of news reports showing EVs (and other products containing lithium-ion batteries) catching fire.

As ING points out, the sodium-ion battery is non-flammable and – being safer than alternatives at higher temperatures – could be especially attractive for use in hot climates such as the Middle East, India and Africa.

“Northvolt’s batteries will be able to withstand up to three times as much heat exposure as lithium batteries,” ING says.

Other technologies

Around the world, there have been a myriad of proposed technologies for batteries, most of which (at least in the short term) will remain just a theory.

Vienna University has produced a battery without lithium or rare earths, using a form of ceramic materials, while scientists at Edith Cowan University are working on a zinc-air battery.

The difference with the sodium-ion battery is that, unlike all the technologies under investigation, it is actually now in commercial use.